Thursday, July 12, 2012

Thursday Night on the Lower East Side: The Drilling Company presents "The Merry Wives of Windsor (Towers)" at Shakespeare in the Parking Lot on Ludlow and Broome Streets

Tonight we were lucky enough to attend the opening of The Drilling Company's new season of Shakespeare in the Parking Lot and the premiere of The Merry Wives of Windsor Towers, a raucous and uproarious version of the farcical comedy featuring Falstaff, here set in a Lower East Side condo. Directed by Hamilton Clancy, the production provided lots of laughs and proved as entertaining as the previous performances we've seen at the municipal parking lot at Broome and Ludlow Streets.
We'd been to the two shows of the 2010 Shakespeare in the Parking Lot season - Love's Labour's Lost and Julius Caesar - and they always seem to do fine work in what's an odd setting, with the space provided by the city Department of Transportation and lighting, once it's dark enough to be needed, provided by Con Edison (in the form of lampposts).

Unlike a park, the working parking lot at Ludlow and Broome is in the middle of a very busy, often noisy dynamic neighborhood - but the ambient sounds (sirens, nearby loud music, passersby conversing in several languages - are easily tuned out, and the actors' voices manage to carry over them, their line readings pretty faultless and in some cases brilliant.

Like the version called The Merry Wives of Windsor Terrace that Brave New World Repertory presented last summer in a Brooklyn playground, director Hamilton Clancy - as he did the Julius Caesar presented with the title character a Bloombergesque tyrant (perhaps a benevolent one), the conspirators aggrieved civil servants and civic leaders - The Merry Wives of Windsor Towers is set in the present, with substituted New York references: the Hudson River replacing the Thames, the Fat Woman of Brentford becoming the Fat Woman of Bay Ridge, and so on.
Shakespeare in the Parking Lot has perhaps a more current New York "feel" than any of the summer outdoor theater companies. Their last production of Merry Wives back in 2001, was set on the Upper East Side, and it's a measure of the changes in the city that the tony home of the Pages and Fords and their friends can now be relocated a lot further south.

In a lot of ways, Merry Wives is one of Shakespeare's more convoluted comedies, akin to a very complex and sophisticated sitcom; we heard one adult before the performance asking some young ones (perhaps students?) if they'd read the summary beforehand to make the many characters and plot devices easier to comprehend. It's actually not that hard if the performers are adept enough, as they are here, and even a slightly clueless young (or old) audience member just concentrating on the broad physical and easily understandable verbal humor. There's a lot of plain silliness here, not to mention some broad stereotypes, and it all seems to work nearly without a flaw.

Presented without an intermission, as always (we're told to use the bathroom at McDonald's or Starbucks on Delancey Street if we need to; we managed to control our BPH and now live just one J or M train stop away, luckily), the play moved very quickly, the time melting as the many characters went through their comic conspiracies, with lots of laughs (one point was probably the most we've ever laughed continuously at any Shakespeare play we'd ever seen, on film or on stage) moving things along.

The talented ensemble included a very funny, if hapless Dave Marantz as Falstaff, Karla Hendrick as Mistress Ford, Victoria Campbell as Mistress Page, Veronica Cruz as Mistress Quickly, Amanda Dillard as Ann Page, Jean Marc Russ as Master Page, Bill Green as Robert Shallow, Andrew Markert as Hugh Evans, Sajeev Pillai as The Host of the Garter, Grant Turnbull as Master Slender, Shane Mitchell is Master Fenton, Drew Valins as Dr. Caius and Alessandro Colla as Pistol.

Other featured actors include Michael Gnat, Leal Vona (whose Shakespeare work with Smith Street Stage we've admired), Thoe Maltz and Hailey Simmonds. Due to illness, someone (we didn't catch her name) stepped in at the last moment as Simple tonight, and she was so fine that we were totally oblivious to her subbing at short notice. All the actors were fine, but we especially admired Sajeev Pillai, Drew Valins, Andrew Markert, Alessandro Colla, and whoever played Master Ford - probably because we're a sucker for politically incorrect exaggerated ethnic accents.

And as the "merry wives," Victoria Campbell and Karla Hendrick were delicious as any Real Housewives you seen on cable TV. And two actors we recall well from the other productions we saw here -- Amanda Dillard (from Love's Labour's Lost) as a sexy but sensible Ann Page, and Bill Green (from Julius Caesar) as an amiable, distracted Justice Shallow -- also gave fine performances.

The scenic design - including very clever and effective little doors in the skyline backdrop reminiscent of joke time in TV's classic Laugh-In -- was by Jennifer Varbalow, and Lisa Renee Jordan shrewdly designed the costumes.  And Clancy Hamilton, artistic director of The Drilling Company, has once again managed to direct a Shakespeare in the Parking Lot production that should keep audiences coming down to the Lower East Side.  The Merry Wives runs on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights starting at 8 p.m. until July 28.  Check it out and the world will be your oyster.

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